Nancy Wilms and Tiffany Hedgpeth both spent at least 15 years in the downtown L.A. office of Boston’s Bingham McCutchen LLP, representing major clients such as Chevron Corp. and pharmaceutical giant McKesson Corp. as partners in the firm’s environmental litigation group.

But now the two are going small. They’ve jumped from 1,000-attorney Bingham to 10-attorney San Francisco boutique Edgcomb Law Group LLP. The two opened an office for Edgcomb in Burbank last month.

Wilms and Hedgpeth said that while at Bingham, they began feeling pressure to lower their rates from clients such as Canadian fertilizer company Agrium Inc., and found it difficult to go out and compete for new work.

“We would get told, ‘I love working with you, you guys do a great job, but the rates are just too high,’” Wilms said. “Those are the folks that have been excited about our move.”

The two are now charging hourly rates at less than two-thirds of what they were charging at Bingham. A number of clients, including Agrium and Pittsburgh metals company Allegheny Technologies Inc., have followed them to Edgcomb. They will also continue to work with McKesson.

There aren’t many environmental litigation boutiques operating in the L.A. area, but Hedgpeth said that she believed it was “the new normal.”

At Bingham, the departures of Wilms, 54, and Hedgpeth, 43, means further contraction for the firm’s environmental litigation presence in Los Angeles. Last year, Colleen Doyle left for Hunton & Williams LLP and Jill Teraoka left to join the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California as senior deputy general counsel. Four environmental litigation partners remain in the office, including Rick Rothman, office managing partner, and James Dragna, whose clients include Exxon Mobil Corp. and Southern California Edison.

New Transactional Boutique

Downward pressure on hourly rates has also led to an increase in the number of corporate and transactional boutiques formed by attorneys with big law experience. The latest is Century City’s Sklar Kirsh LLP, formed by corporate attorney Jeffrey Sklar and real estate attorney Andrew Kirsh.

Sklar, 40, was formerly an attorney at Century City firm Loeb & Loeb LLP before starting his own shop, Sklar Law PC, in 2010. Kirsh, 37, was previously a partner at Raines Feldman LLP, another new local boutique, and before that worked at Boston firm Goodwin Procter LLP.

The two are charging less than $500 an hour, rates lower than big firms. They will also consider taking equity in a company or in a real estate deal as an alternative arrangement.

Sklar said the nine-attorney firm is targeting midsize corporate and real estate transactions typical of the L.A. market.

“The reason our firm exists is because Los Angeles is an entrepreneurial town where the great majority of transactions happens in the middle market to lower market,” he said. “Whether you’re talking about a $25 million asset sale of a business or the purchase of a $10 million commercial building, these are things ideally suited for a firm like ours.”

At the end of last year, Sklar closed a deal for a production company client, Prospect Park LLC, in which it secured financing from a private-equity firm to launch an online television network. Kirsh recently represented Pacshore Partners LLC in an $18.6 million property purchase in Santa Monica.

Southern Draw

Meanwhile, law firms big and small in the L.A. area have been building up their intellectual property practices, responding to the local boom in tech and media companies as well as a continuing rise in IP lawsuits.

Outside players are also jumping in, including Atlanta’s Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP.

The 600-attorney firm acquired seven-attorney Beverly Hills IP boutique Keats McFarland & Wilson earlier this month. The firm’s new L.A. outpost will be based in Keats McFarland’s old offices.

Larry McFarland, the new office’s managing partner, said that he’s seeing rising demand.

“Los Angeles is doing very well in the area of intellectual property and companies focused on intellectual property,” he said. “You can see the whole expansion of Silicon Beach, and so many different production and entertainment companies opening in Southern California.”

McFarland, 54, and his Beverly Hills colleagues focus on copyright and trademark litigation, with clients including Beverly Hills’ Live Nation Entertainment Inc., Zynga Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Hasbro Inc. They’ll likely be looking to hire patent litigators and general commercial litigators to round out the office.

Maureen Sheehy, firm managing partner, said she believed the firm could attract intellectual property attorneys despite competition for talent.

Staff reporter Alfred Lee can be reached at alee@labusinessjournal.com or (323) 549-5225, ext. 221.

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